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THE LIFE AND WRITINGS
It is commonly said, that the life of a good writer is best read in his works; which can scarce fail to receive a peculiar tincture from his temper, manners, and habits; the distinguishing character of his mind, his ruling passion, at least, will there appear undisguised. But however just this observation may be, and although we might safely rest Thomson's fame, as a good man, as well as a man of genius, on this sole footing; yet the desire which the Public always shew of being more particularly acquainted with the history of an eminent author, ought not to be disappointed; as it proceeds not from mere curiosity, but chiefly from affection and gratitude to those by whom they have been entertained and instructed.
To give some account of a deceased friend is often a piece of justice likewise, which ought not to be refused to his memory; to prevent or efface the impertinent fictions which officious biographers are so apt to collect and propagate. And we may add, that the circumstances of an author's life will sometimes throw the best light upon his writings; instances whereof we shall meet with in the following pages.
James Thomson was born at Ednam, in the shire of Roxburgh, on the 11th of September, in the year 1700. His father, minister of that place, was but little known beyond the narrow circle of his co-presbyters, and to a few gentlemen in the neighbourhood; but highly respected by them, for his piety, and his diligence in the pastoral duty: as appeared afterwards, in their kind offices to his widow and orphan family.
The reverend Messrs. Riccarton and Gusthart, particularly, took a most affectionate and friendly part in all their concerns. The former, a man of uncommon penetration and good taste, had very early discovered, through the rudeness of young Thomson's puerile essays, a fund of genius well deserving culture and encouragement. He undertook, therefore, with the father's approbation, the chief direction of his studies, furnished him with the proper books, corrected his performances, and was daily rewarded with the pleasure of seeing his labour so bappily employed.
The other reverend gentleman, Mr. Gusthart, who is still living *, one of the ministers of Edinburgh, and senior of the Chapel Royal, was no less serviceable to Mrs. Thomson in the management of her little affairs; which, after the decease of her husband, burdened as she was with a family of nine children, required the prudent counsels and assistance of that faithful and generous friend.
; Sir William Bennet likewise, well known for his gay humour and ready poetical wit, was highly delighted with our young poet, and used to invite him to pass the summer vacation at his country seat : a scene of life which Thomson always remembered with particular pleasure. But what he wrote
during that time, either to entertain Sir William and Mr. Riccarton, or for his own amusement, he destroyed every new year's day ; committing his little pieces to the flames, in their due order; and crowning the solemnity with a copy of verses, in which were humorously recited the several grounds of their condemnation.
After the usual course of school education, under an able master at Jedburgh, Thomsun was sent to the University of Edinburgh. But in the second year of his admission, his studies were for some time interrupted by the death of his father; who was carried off so suddenly, that it was not possible for Thomson, with all the diligence he could use, to receive his last blessing. This affected him to an uncommon degree; and his relations still remember some extraordinary instances of his grief and filial duty on that occasion.
Mrs. Thomson, whose maiden name was Hume, and who - was co-heiress of a small estate in the country, did not sink under this misfortune. She consulted her friend Mr. Gusthart: and having, by his advice, mortgaged her moiety of the farm, repaired with her family to Edinburgh; where she lived in a decent, frugal manner, till ber favourite son had not only finished his academical course, but was even distinguished and patronised as a man of genius. She was, herself, a person of uncommon natural endowments; possessed of every social and domestic virtue; with an imagination, for vivacity and warmth, scarce inferior to her son's, and which raised ber devotional exercises to a pitch bordering on enthusiasm.
But whatever advantage Thomson might derive from the complexion of his parent, it is certain he owed much to a religious education, and that his early acquaintance with the sacred writings, contributed greatly to that sublime, by which his works will be for ever distinguished. In his first pieces, the Seasons, we see him at once assume the majestic freedom of an Eastern writer ; seizing the grand images as they rise, clothing them in his own expressive language, and preserving, throughout, the grace, the variety, and the dignity, which belong to a just composition, unburt by the stiffness of formal method.
About this time, the study of poetry was become general in Scotland, the best English authors being universally read, and imitations of them attempted, Addison had lately displayed the beauties of Milton's immortal work; and bis remarks on t, together with Pope's celebrated Essay, bad opened the way to an acquaintance with the best poets and critics.
But the most learned critic is not always the best judge of poetry; taste being a gift of nature, the want of which Aristotle and Bossu cannot supply; nor even the study of the best originals, when the reader's faculties are not tuned in a certain consonance to those of the poet: and this happened to be the case with certain learned gentlemen, into whose hands a few of Thomson's first essays had fallen. Some inaccuracies of style, and those luxuriances which a young writer can hardly avoid, lay open to their cavils and censure ; so far indeed they might he competent judges : but the fire and enthusiasm of the poet had entirely escaped their notice. Thomson, however, conscious of his own strength, was not discouraged by this treatment, especially as he had some friends on whose judgment he could better rely, and who thought very differently of his performances. Only, from that time, he began to turn his views towards London ; where works of genius may always expect a candid reception and due encourage
ment; and an accident soon after entirely determined him to try his fortune there.
The divinity chair at Edinburgh was then filled by the reverend and learned Mr. Hamilton; a gentleman universally respected and beloved ; and who had particularly endeared bimself to the young divines under his care, by his kind offices, his candour and affability. Our author had attended his lec: tures for about a year, when there was prescribed to him, for the subject of an exercise, a psalm, in which the power and majesty of God are celebrated. Of this psalm he gave a paraphrase and illustration, as the nature of the exercise required; but in a style so highly poetical as surprised the whole audience. Mr. Hamilton, as his custom was, complimented the orator upon his performance, and pointed out to the students the most masterly striking parts of it; but at last, turning to Thomson, he told him, smiling, that if he thought of being useful in the ministry, he must keep a stricter rein upon his imagination, and express himself in language more intelligible to an ordinary congregation.
This gave Thomson to understand, that his expectations from the study of theology might be very precarious; even though the Church had been more his free choice than probably it was. So that having, soon after, received some encouragement from a lady of quality, a friend of his mother's, then in London, he quickly prepared bimself for his journey: And although this encouragement ended in nothing beneficial, it served for the present as a good pretext, to cover the imprudence of committing himself to the wide world, unfriended and unpatronised, and with the slender stock of money, he was then possessed of.